Metatext in the comics

Another topic arising from the Stanford comics seminar, again from a proposal for a student paper (which I won’t cite here because the topic might change and in any case is still the student’s work, though I might cite it later with the student’s permission).

The topic is metatext, outside the text of the comic itself and in Elizabeth Traugott’s phrasing in e-mail, serving to “frame the way to read the text”.

At least six types: captions, titles, inserts, mouseovers, accompanying text, and footnotes. I haven’t discussed any of these systematically, but they’ve all come up in my postings on the comics. Some notes.

Captions. Captions (located below the body of the comic) are so common in single-panel cartoons that they’re scarcely worth commenting on, except to note that single-panels are often so poor in context and content that captions are valuable for the reader. Innumerable examples on this blog.

Titles. In principle, titles (located above the body of the comic) serve to announce the topics of comics, especially three- or four-panel strips. But they have other uses.

A great many Zippys have titles, but these titles are rarely just helpful topic declarations; instead, they are additional jokes, beyond the ones in the body of the comic. Again, a great many examples on this blog.

Inserts. These appear within the body of the cartoon, in boxes or balloons, but not attributed to any of the characters; instead, they serve to frame the narratives in the cartoon. They are used especially often to indicate changes in place or time from one panel to the next, and are common in book comics (“Meanwhile, back at the ranch”).

Mouseovers. Available only on the net. These framing or commenting messages appear when a mouse hovers over the image. xkcd is especially given to mouseovers.

(On the punctuation of the word and on its inflectional morphology, see this posting.)

Accompanying text. Available on the net and, in principle, with print comics, but mostly used on the net, where explanation or snarky commentary can be provided after the comic itself. Scenes From a Multiverse and Dinosaur Comics regularly have accompanying text.

Footnotes. Occasionally, comics have expressions marked as footnotes (with the standard asterisk), with the explanatory footnote itself (again, marked with an asterisk) appearing somewhere inside or close to the body of the comic.

All of these devices deserve further study.

A combo. My recent posting of an xkcd cartoon (entitled “Messing with my mind”) has a title (beginning with “My hobby”), an insert (“Three hours later”, indicating the passage of time), and a mouseover:

Like spelling “dammit” correctly – with two m’s – it’s a troll that works best on the most literate.

Metatext all over the place.

2 Responses to “Metatext in the comics”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    Addendum: single-panel cartoons often have captions instead of speech balloons, showing what a character is saying. In particular, this is New Yorker style. Not really metatext, but a piece of text that happens to be located outside the main image.

  2. Metatext in the comics (conference version) | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] (An abstract for the upcoming Semantics Festival at Stanford; my paper is this Friday afternoon at 2. This is the abstract as submitted, but with a footnote added; it needs more text and also illustrative examples. Earlier version on this blog here.) […]

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